Spanish demands on the EU and the German EU Council Presidency


Europe and European politics do not currently play a central role in the social debate in Spain. This makes it all the more important for Europe to come up with clear proposals to overcome the crisis.

Spanien erwartet konkrete Vorschläge: Europaflagge in Straßburg

Spain is expecting concrete proposals

The pictures and numbers from Spain we have seen over the last weeks and months speak for themselves. After Italy, Spain was for many weeks the country second most stricken by Covid-19. It ranks fourth in EU-wide mortality figures, trailing only the UK, Italy, and France. The health care system has collapsed in terms of personnel and infrastructure as a result of cuts made since the economic crisis of 2008. Over the past weeks and months, the understaffed and underpaid caregivers and other health care workers have worked beyond the limits of human endurance.

Large metropolitan areas, especially Madrid and Barcelona, were hardest hit by the virus. Almost 60 percent of those who died in Spain were registered in Barcelona / Catalonia and Madrid; most of them in retirement and nursing homes (both public and private). Undoubtedly, the density of built-up areas and city architecture contributed significantly to the rapid spread of the virus. One must also consider the fact that major events in these two cities (such as soccer games and the women’s march on March 8th) were not banned until very late. Both cities are among those that most slowly began the de-escalation phases. Following a complete lockdown, the Spanish government has started re-opening in various regions and islands. This process is intended to take place in four stages with 14-day intervals in-between. At each stage, the Canary and Balearic Islands will be the first areas to move to the next phase.

Most people dissatisfied with crisis management

Madrid and Barcelona / Catalonia are also cities with a growing opposition to the policies of the government. Currently, 66% of Spaniards are dissatisfied with the way their government is handling the crisis (@Dalia Research 2020). While the first phase of the lockdown was achieved with political consensus, the political struggle for power has now returned at all levels - including the Catalonia issue. There are few other countries where political power games between government and opposition have manifested themselves as strongly as in Spain. Criticism of the government leveled by the far-right Vox party has galvanised the right-wing People’s Party as well as various other nationalist parties to devastating effect. Again and again, newspapers praise the cohesion and restrained criticism by the opposition in Germany and Portugal. In contrast to Germany, Spain does not have a culture of seeking consensus to resolve disputes; confrontation and polarisation dominate instead.

Climate of polarization

As in many other countries, the easing is more difficult to manage than the introduction of the strict lockdown. Political disputes and power games now take precedence over finding a common political course and confound maintaining a joint approach. The government’s state of emergency - the second highest level of the government intervention into economic, social, and territorial affairs - is expected to continue until July 1st. Currently, Prime Minister Sanchez is trying to assemble a parliamentary majority to continue the state of emergency.  He will be forced to make quite a few concessions to the opposition. If parliament refuses to give its consent, responsibility for the health care sector will revert to the regions and the central government will lose its ability to manage the crisis.

The Spanish government launched various measures and tried to support freelancers, companies, and families across the country during the lockdown. It is unclear how long aid such as short-time working benefits will last; whether it will be sufficient; and how it will be financed over a longer period of time.

Like many other countries, the direct and indirect consequences of the Corona crisis is first and foremost a gender issue.  Seventy six percent of health care personnel are women. Whether it is the low wages in supermarkets or in the social sector or in health care – it is women who bear the biggest brunt; who are threatened by job loss and poverty; who are already working in precarious work settings; who are threatened by loneliness and domestic violence; and who go way beyond their limits because of the double burden of work and family.

Spanish economists demand more financial support and economic stimulus measures

Anton Costas, a renowned economist with the ear of the government, is convinced that compared to the rest of Europe, financial assistance is too meager in all areas and urgently needs to be expanded. Failing this, may result in a massive increase in poverty and social unrest. But how can aid be funded in the long run?

According to Costas, reform initiatives launched by the center-left government need to be continued.[1] After extended economic stagnation following the crisis of 2008, Spain had slowly worked itself out of the difficult situation and was in the process of tackling reform bottlenecks and initiating new social and economic stimulus measures.

Economists such as Costas, contend that in order for Spain to get back on its feet, the following must occur:

  • A political pact between business, the government, and civil society;
  • New measures, such as an unconditional basic income to fight poverty;
  • A public Labor Pact whereby everybody who wants to work finds a job – be it in the public, private or non-governmental sector;
  • The speedy reopening of schools;
  • A significantly better equipped and prepared health care system;
  • Improved bankruptcy legislation to protect companies from bankruptcy;
  • Nationalization or state participation in companies representing the interests of the state based on clear-cut rules (e.g. Lufthansa in Germany);
  • Agreements between the government, business, and investment centers to boost innovation and help modernize society.[2]

Spain is expecting specific proposals from the EU

The simple truth is that Europe and European politics currently do not play a key role in the social discourse in Spain. The consequences of the post-2008 austerity policy - associated mainly with the German government - are still too present and painful. The damage caused by Germany’s insistence on austerity considerably undermined the reputation of Germany and the EU in Spain. But the situation of Covid-19 is not the same as the crisis of 2008. This time it is a global crisis that affects everybody, albeit to different degrees. Consequently, from a Spanish perspective, it is not necessary for Northern Europe to show solidarity with Southern Europe; rather together they need to develop European solidarity. “We can only get out of this crisis together”, has become the mantra of the EU. However, there are doubts as to whether Europe will be able to manage this. Clear statements and a structured approach have been missing during the Corona crisis. While people want to see a common approach on multiple levels, doubt remains. It is difficult to describe the sentiments of the Spanish population. An initial paralysis was followed by “We need to get this sorted by ourselves”.

The longer borders remain closed, the longer Spain will be seen as one of the epicenters, the more  important it will be for Europe to take clear actions to remedy the situation in order to avoid a renunciation of European ideas and European cohesion. Spain’s number one source of income is international tourism. It ranks higher than the construction industry and agricultural production. Confidence has been destroyed long-term. The fear of no summer tourism is huge which would be disastrous. Long-term damage would be incalculable. Europe needs to take action.

European measures to boost tourism

There is a demand for large funds, bonds, and aid packages in order to minimize the long-term shock for the European business sector - especially in Spain. Currently, there is a fear that Germany will be the primary beneficiary of European aid. A country like Spain that largely depends on tourism and the automotive parts industry is one of the countries within Europe that will recover only slowly. Unemployment, especially among young people, was already one of the highest in Europe before Corona. The same applies to the number of school dropouts. Only when the state of emergency is lifted, will we see how many companies will actually go bankrupt; how many multinational corporations, like Nissan, will close their plants; how long it will take for tourists to regain confidence and spend their holidays in Spain. Spain must overcome the climate of polarization. The atmosphere in the country is dire and can turn against the government any moment. This is already happening in several other countries; but it shows once again that Spain is still a fairly young democracy. The introduction of a European basic income would be a good opportunity for Spain to counter the increasingly loud and pessimistic anti-Europe voices.  It would demonstrate that nationalism does not solve the problem and that it is worth committing to social change in Europe as a whole. This would help to blunt adverse social consequences.

A European response for the health care sector

There is a need for a European response for the health care sector. Covid-19 demonstrates that the virus does not stop at borders and that almost all European countries are confronted with similar challenges. In Spain, and particularly in Catalonia, the dismantling and privatization of the health care sector as well as the privatization of nursing and retirement homes have cost too many lives. Europe must regain the capacity to produce materials and reserves needed by the health care sector. This would be helpful for a country like Spain because it is a biotechnology knowledge hub. The expansion of European research and science activities in support of the health care sector and a common process for the introduction of a vaccine could become a European-wide endeavor. Europe needs to take action. Spanish researchers could be involved and play a key role in the process.

Historically strong support for the EU and a pro-European attitude have long ceased to exist for the Spanish population. Criticism and dissatisfaction with Europe’s austerity policy dominate. Nevertheless, the Sanchez government has a clear pro-European stance - albeit with a critical perspective. Now is the time for Europe to show that a common focus and the implementation of the Green Deal can result in economic recovery for all European states. This could be a potential economic boost for Spain. The Spanish Greens as well as the Catalan Greens are in line with the government and support this path.

Germany will assume EU Council Presidency in July 2020. But this is not a significant topic in Spain. The focus on getting the situation under control is clearly national. Long-term strategic planning is always difficult, especially in the current situation. Yet, it is European macro-economic reforms that probably most need to be addressed and that will most likely be entrusted to a country like Germany. From a Spanish perspective, Chancellor Merkel has led the Grand Coalition and Germany well through this crisis. To tackle the current European situation and advance European cohesion, Europe needs to assume overall responsibility for strong social and sustainable economic policies. Economic reforms that will not ultimately fall back into the same patterns as before the crisis, but instead are quick, targeted, and result in new economic growth, would definitely be welcome by Spaniards. Concrete actions should include changes in tax policies, launching democratic reforms of the EU, and reclaiming the democratic European discourse. Topics such as mobility, tourism, and sustainable energy supply should be considered. Focus should also be given to a European health policy, a common European asylum policy and, not least, to the introduction of a European basic income.

Susanne Rieger

Responsible for European issues and European relations in the Catalan Green foundation Fundació Nous Horitzons

Co-President of the Green European Foundation


[1] After a year of interim government, Spain again had a right-wing government lead by conservative Mariano Rajoy. His government was largely responsible for major cuts and privatizations in the health care and social sectors. After a vote of no-confidence triggered by allegations of corruption against then governing Prime Minister Rajoy, the promising current Centre-Left government was formed following extensive negotiations. It consists of the social-democratic party, PSOE, and the left-wing party, PODEMOS - a protest party without government experience - and is headed by Pedro Sanchez.

[2] Spain is still at the bottom end of digitization in Europe.